Joe Biden

On-the-Record Press Call by White House Spokesperson Ian Sams

January 23, 2023

Via Teleconference

4:20 P.M. EST

MS. YANG: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for your patience. Apologies that we are getting started a little late. Looks like a couple of people still trickling in. But we'll go ahead and get started.

Just a reminder, today's call with White House spokesperson Ian Sams is on the record and embargoed until the completion of the call.

By participating in this call, you are agreeing to these ground rules.

As occurred last time, Ian will give some brief opening remarks, and then we'll move into Q&A. As always, please indicate whether or not you have a question with the "Raise Hand" function.

And with that, I will turn it over to Ian.

MR. SAMS: Thanks, guys. And, Sharon, thank you all for getting on the call today. Really appreciate it.

I hope you guys also had a good weekend and that you're starting your week off strong.

I have brief updates at the top here, and then we can jump in to questions and spend some time on Q&A.

So, first, this morning, the White House Counsel sent a letter to the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee in response to inquiries that he has made about documents and requesting documents and material on this issue. We can provide that letter if you would like to receive it. Please just email Sharon.

In it, the White House Counsel congratulated Chairman Comer on his new position leading the committee, explained that the White House does not have possession of the documents that the Archives and DOJ have taken into their possession, and stressed the importance of protecting the integrity and independence of law enforcement investigations.

But we did respond to the Chairman. That's consistent with our position. As the President has said, that he is prepared to work in good faith with Congress. And we're going to engage in conversations with the committee to determine next steps.

Second, as you all saw this weekend, the President's personal lawyer released a statement transparently disclosing a voluntary DOJ search of the President's residence in Wilmington on Friday. As he said, the search lasted about 13 hours. They had access to every room of his house. And as we said in our statement from the White House Counsel's Office, this action was consistent with the President's commitment to cooperate with DOJ throughout this process.

This was an unprecedented offer for DOJ to thoroughly search the personal family home of the President of the United States to ensure that any documents that should be in the possession of the government were in the possession of the government. And it reveals how seriously the President is taking this issue and how actively he is cooperating with the ongoing investigation.

I also want to be sure that you all saw, in response to this search, that the Department of Justice responded on the record, saying it was, quote, "a planned consensual search."

So, I know there's been a lot of confusion about that, so let me be very clear: The President offered DOJ access to his home. It was voluntary. They had unprecedented ability to access decades' worth of old, personally handwritten notes; files; papers; to-do lists; memorabilia; and other materials in his home.

They identified some additional material and took possession of it. DOJ had asked the President's personal lawyer not to disclose the search until it had concluded, and, of course, we agreed, given our full cooperation.

But we promptly made it known to you all, consistent with what we've told you about keeping you updated as we have information to share, while obviously also carefully protecting the integrity of the investigation.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions. Give me just one second.

Okay, sorry about that. Just had an unmuting issue on my end. Nancy Cordes, CBS.

Q: Hey, Ian. Thank you so much for doing this. I was

wondering if you could tell us who is paying the President's personal attorney. It seems like this could lead to some pretty hefty legal bills. So is the President and his family paying the bills? Or is it the DNC or a super PAC? Where will the money come from?

MR. SAMS: Thanks for that question, Nancy. On that, I'm going to have to refer you to Molly Levinson, who is leading communications for the President's personal attorney. We can get you her contact if you need it.

Zeke Miller, AP.

Q: Thanks, Ian. The President said that he was -- when the initial documents were found at the Biden Center -- that he was surprised that there were classified doc- -- materials there. Was he surprised that classified materials were at his home? He has not answered that. Did he know that the items taken by DOJ were there in his -- in his home?

And then, will there be searches of the President's other home in Delaware or of the Penn Biden Center? And does the President consent to those?

MR. SAMS: I'm just writing that down so I don't forget.

Thank you. So, on the first question, look, I think it's really important to take a step back and understand sort of exactly how he's approaching this process.

His lawyers made the discovery of an additional document in the room adjacent to the garage, as we announced previously; made the President aware that that material was at the house; and the President offered DOJ to come do a thorough search to ensure that any government documents that may be there that should be in the possession of the government are returned to the government.

And so, it underscores how seriously he's taking this issue that he would proactively and voluntarily disclose to DOJ these findings as soon as they occur, and that he would take the step of giving access to the home to DOJ to do an exhaustive search of the premises.

The President spoke to this in the initial comments you're talking about. The President's lawyers have made him aware as additional material has been discovered and has kept him abreast of this process as it moves along.

On your second question, the -- I'm going to be very careful not to get ahead of potential future investigatory steps. I would refer you to DOJ on how they're making those decisions. We're following the DOJ's lead here, and the President's personal attorneys are in open communication with the department. But we're not going to get ahead of any potential future investigative steps.

Steve Holland.

Q: Hey. Thanks, Ian. The statement on Saturday said that there had been six documents found with classified markings and some other materials. Can you describe those other materials in any way just to give a little more clarity of what that was? And that's about it.

MR. SAMS: Thanks, Steve. So, I'll point you to what the statement from the President's personal attorney said -- that -- that six items were consisting of documents with the classification markings and surrounding materials, some of which were from the President's service in Senate, some of which from his tenure as Vice President. And the DOJ also took for further review personally handwritten notes from the vice presidential years.

I'm not going to go beyond the statement at this time. You know, we -- we're being very careful not to give too much commentary on the underlying materials of this. Those are in possession of the DOJ and will be a part of their ongoing investigation. And so, when it comes to specific contents and materials, I'd refer you to DOJ.

Sorry, just a minute. Akayla Gardner, Bloomberg.

Q: Hey, Ian. Thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask: What was the thought about allowing lawyers without security clearance to sort of conduct these searches initially? It kind of seems like that has prolonged this process. And are you recommending that any future searches be conducted by FBI agents?

MR. SAMS: Yeah, thanks for -- for those questions. So, as we said -- as the President's personal attorney said in the statement that was released last weekend outlining all the processes and procedures that were in place on the initial searches, those were coordinated with DOJ.

Like we've said from the very beginning, the President's team has been fully cooperating with DOJ, working with them throughout this process, ensuring they have access to the information that they need.

The President's personal attorneys, last weekend, put out a pretty extensive and lengthy statement about the protocols and processes in the agreements that were set up to conduct those searches. You guys all should have access to that. If you don't, I'm happy to make sure you do.

And, you know, we are fully cooperating with DOJ, working with them throughout their investigative steps here and coordinating with them on any needs going forward. So, in terms of the searches, potential searches, things like that, I'm not going to get ahead of any decisions that are made. But, you know, we're fully cooperating with DOJ.

Mary Bruce.

Q: Hi, there. Thank you for doing this. I just wanted to follow up. I didn't hear an answer to Zeke's question about whether the President was, in fact, surprised that these documents were found -- the additional documents found over the weekend.

And also, I know you said this was a consensual, sort of, coordinated search by the FBI last Friday, but who initiated that conversation? Was it the FBI requesting to come in and then you all agreeing to that? Or was it your decision and your idea that the FBI come in and do that search? And similarly, have you invited them to come to Rehoboth and to that house as well?

MR. SAMS: Thanks. And so, on that second one, you know, this was a voluntary, proactive offer by the President's personal lawyers to DOJ to have access to the home. DOJ, obviously, came on Friday and conducted that extensive search of the house.

We released statements on Saturday -- long ones -- from the President's personal attorney and from the White House Counsel's Office describing those searches: what was found, how they worked, et cetera. So I would point you to those.

But it was a voluntary, proactive offer by the personal lawyers for DOJ to come.

On the former question, the President's lawyers have kept him informed throughout this process as they've been in negotiations -- or discussions, I should say, with DOJ. He has -- they've been kept aware by his lawyers as material has been found. And I'd point you to that and to the statements that the President made last week.

Alex Nazaryan.

Alex, you there? Alex? Alex? Going once. Going twice.

Okay, let's see. Let's go to Andrew Restuccia, please.

Q: Thanks. Just real quick, do you -- did the President -- did the President's lawyers or the FBI have any plans to look into the -- Mr. Biden's Senate papers that are all held at the University of Delaware, given that Senate materials have now been included in the materials that were found?

And just to clarify, does the White House know what was in the materials that were taken from Wilmington on Friday? Has the White House been briefed by the FBI on those materials?

MR. SAMS: Hey, thanks for that. I'm sorry. I was just getting off mute again.

On the first question, in terms of accessing materials, you know, I'd refer you to DOJ for specific questions about, you know, where they may want to pursue information gathering. We're not going to get ahead of that process.

Obviously, we respect the independence of the Justice Department to make determinations about how to conduct its own investigations. The President's personal lawyers, I think as we have said throughout this process, are in full cooperation with DOJ to have these discussions.

And so, when it comes to any potential future investigative steps, reviews of material, things that they may want to do, we're just not going to speak to that from here at this time. And I will point you to Justice Department on that.

In terms of the contents of the search on Friday, you know, I would point you to the statements that were released both by us and by the President's personal lawyers -- the personal lawyer -- I just reiterated a minute ago, the statement that we released that laid out exactly what was taken.

You know, when it comes to underlying contents, I want to be really careful not to speak to some of those, as they are part of the ongoing investigation and review by the Justice Department. They are in the possession of the Justice Department for them to review the materials.

And so, you know, just out of respect for that process of them conducting their investigation and ensuring that it has the integrity it deserves, we're going to point you to DOJ for any specific questions about contents of the materials.

Brooke Singman.

Q: Hey, Ian, thanks for doing this. Can you hear me? Sorry.

MR. SAMS: Yeah, I can hear you.

Q: Okay, great. Thank you. Sorry. Just a quick question about the statement on Saturday evening. I know this was from the President's personal attorney, but he specifically says that six items containing classified documents were taken. Are you able to provide any additional details as to how many classified documents were included in the six items or what those six items were -- folders, binders?

MR. SAMS: Hey, thanks. Look, I understand that there's a lot of questions about the underlying material and what they may contain or further explanations of how that -- what that is and what it looks like. We're just not going to comment on that at this time, beyond what was in the statement released by the personal attorneys.

You know, it's really important that DOJ is able to review this material and conduct it in the process of their investigation. We don't want to be speaking outside of that process.

You know, I think what I said to you guys last week, and continue to sort of stress and affirm: You know, we are going to try to get you guys access to important information as much as we can, while also protecting the integrity of that investigation.

You know, we don't want to be saying too much about the underlying investigation, the underlying investigative material, the stuff that's in DOJ's possession that they may or may not be looking at. You know, those are questions that are much more appropriately handled by the Justice Department.

And so, when it comes to the questions about the underlying material, I would point you to the Justice Department.

When it comes to our characterization of the material, I would just continue to point to the language that we released in the statement from the President's personal attorney -- or, excuse me, that the President's personal attorney released on Saturday -- and use that language as what they were representing as was taken.

Thanks. Tommy Christopher.

Q: Hi, Ian. This is Tommy.


Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I guess, I really have two questions. The first one is: Last week, after you briefed all of us, some of our colleagues went to Karine's briefing and complained that even though you answered questions, that it wasn't live and it wasn't televised. And I'm wondering what you would say to that complaint and -- and what -- whether or not there's a possibility you would brief for the cameras and just sort of let everybody ask all their questions until they're blue in the face.

And then my second question, just because I'm sure somebody is going to ask it, is -- the documents that were retrieved or returned over when Trump had his -- Mar-a-Lago was raided, they took pictures and published those. Do you have any idea why that wasn't done in this case? Thank you.

MR. SAMS: Thanks for that question. On the second one, you know, I'd refer you to DOJ on sort of specific questions about their -- their processes when it comes to activities like this. I certainly don't want to speak for those or comment on any potential ongoing investigation involving anyone else.

So, in terms of that second question, I would refer you to DOJ.

On the first one, look, I have certainly endeavored to give all of you in the press corps access to the information that you need. I've taken your questions a couple times. I've made myself available for media interviews.

Look, I think that there's some of this -- in every presidency, you know, there are many people out there in the media who sort of try to stir up controversy to get attention or -- or time on camera. But I think it's important to sort of take a step back here while we're having this conversation about these -- these issues to look at the sort of underlying issue that we're talking about here. The underlying issue that we're talking about here is that as soon as the President's personal team noticed something, they immediately and promptly and transparently disclosed that to the proper authorities.

They noticed a document with a classified marking; they immediately contacted the appropriate authorities.

And ever since that moment, they have been and we, as the White House, have been fully cooperative with the proper reviews throughout this process. That's what we're talking about.

And -- and throughout this process, we've tried to give you guys public information as it's appropriate, consistent with that ongoing investigation to respect the integrity of that investigation. Because, again, the President has been very clear going all the way back to the campaign. He sees the Justice Department as independent -- very important to keep them independent, to not influence their decision-making.

And I know for, you know, a lot of you guys who have been covering this for the last few years especially, that may be a foreign concept.

But I think that the American people see it for what it is, which is the President respecting the appropriate entity who is doing an investigation and ensuring that they have the independence they need to conduct that investigation.

And so, you know, we'll continue to take your questions and answer your questions about this to try to help you understand the underlying information as best we can, consistent with respect of the ongoing investigation. And I hope that -- that we can continue this conversation.

Sophia, Axios.

Q: Hey, Ian. You know, in the name of cooperation, I'm wondering if you might be able to confirm that, you know, the White House received a letter in mid-November from the Justice Department's National Security Division asking that Biden's, you know, lawyers secure the material that they first found and then to not review any of the documents or look for any other documents. And if this is true, could you confirm that, you know, Biden's lawyers and the White House followed such a request?

MR. SAMS: Thanks for that question. On that particular one, I would need to refer you to the personal attorneys, as well as to the Justice Department.

Jordan, Politico.

Q: Hey, can you hear me?

MR. SAMS: Yep. I gotcha. How you doing?

Q: Good. Thanks for doing the call. I just want to see what you guys made of some of the criticism you got on the Sunday shows from Senate Democrats. I'm thinking of Durbin and Manchin in particular.

And then, just sort of a linked question, maybe, just to double check on our end. Is the White House briefing or keeping congressional Democrats in the loop as you're sort of releasing these statements over the last week or so?

MR. SAMS: Yeah, thanks for that question. So, I'm not going to say too much about conversations with members of Congress. Obviously, folks in the White House are constantly in touch with folks on the Hill as part of our overall engagement with the Hill on issues and agenda items that are important, so I don't want to get too into specifics about conversations that we've had with the Hill.

But on the first question, look, I think that some -- I was asked this question earlier today -- Senator Durbin, for example, in his interview yesterday, you know, emphasized again that this President was handling this responsibly, that he was properly and appropriately cooperating with the Justice Department, that he was handling this in the right way. And that full cooperation is the right way that this should be handled.

And so, you know, I think that at the end of the day, we also are fully cooperating with the Special Counsel and with the Department of Justice. We, you know, believe in their ability to conduct this investigation, are working to provide them with access to the information that they need to conduct the information to -- excuse me, to conduct the investigation thoroughly. And we're going to continue doing that.

And, you know, at the same time, the President is going to continue focusing on his priorities. You know, he's going to -- he's fully cooperating with this with this process. But at the same time, you know, there's a lot of other priorities that he's focused on. He's focused on implementing the legislation that he passed last year.

Just earlier today, we announced that he'll be traveling next week to talk about the implementation of the infrastructure bill.

Just last week, for example, we learned that more small businesses had applied to open in the first two years of this administration than any two-year stretch in history.

These are the kinds of things that he's ensuring that he's communicating with the American public about. I'm sure that, you know, members on the Hill are also communicating these things to the American public.

And so, I think, you know, we understand that we can fully cooperate and be open and transparent in this process as this investigation moves forward. But we also aren't going to stop focusing on some of the other issues that are really important to the American people. And -- and I think that, you know, you'll see a lot of unifying focus on that among the President and Democrats on the Hill.


Q: Hey, Ian. Hi, it's Asma from NPR. Thanks so much. Quick -- a couple questions for you. One is I just want to make sure I am abundantly clear in understanding the voluntary, proactive language that you're referring to. Does that mean that you all initiated the idea of the -- of the FBI search on the President's residence, or did you consent to a search?

MR. SAMS: That's a good question. And I know that these, sorts of, like, legal machinations can be somewhat confusing. But I think it's just important to be as clear as I can: You know, the President's personal lawyers, at the direction of the President, offered for the Justice Department to come to his house and conduct a thorough search of every room in the house to ensure that any material that should be in the possession of the government is in possession of the government.

The Department of Justice did that. They came to the house. They conducted the search. They took away some additional material, fully cooperatively with -- as I think the statement from Bob Bauer this weekend noted -- you know, attorneys from both the personal legal team and the White House Counsel's Office present with DOJ as they conducted that search.

You know, the DOJ confirmed on the record, as I mentioned before, that this was a -- I believe the term was a "planned, consensual search." So, this was voluntary on behalf of the President, agreed to have the agents come on Friday. They conducted the search -- a very thorough search that took nearly 13 hours and took the material that they -- that was announced in the statement on Saturday.

Sorry, just one second.

James Rosen.

Q: Thank you very much. Can you hear me all right?

MR. SAMS: Yep.

Q: Thank you so much. I have two questions for you. One is: Since the -- the statement from the President's personal attorney over the weekend identified the actual number of classified materials that was taken from the Wilmington residence as part of the FBI's action -- I think that number was six -- would you be kind enough to give us, at this point, some kind of understanding of the total number of classified documents from all of the various locations that have been turned over?

And my second question is: I wonder if you could educate the American people on why Mr. Biden is employing two sets of lawyers. The President has personal attorneys that we keep hearing about, and he has the White House Counsel's Office. And what is the, sort of, division of labor between them? Thank you.

Q: Thanks, James. Appreciate those questions.

On the first one, in terms of the number of documents total, I would have to point you to the Justice Department on this again. You know, we are being very careful not to comment specifically on the underlying materials in the investigation.

The personal attorneys have been very clear, as well as White House Counsel's Office, on the protocols that they have followed when they notice or see a document with classified markings -- the things that they do, the way that it was handed over to the appropriate authorities promptly so that they could take possession of it -- the very process that we have followed to ensure that this is handled the right way, that it's handled responsibly and that the documents in question are in the possession of the Department of Justice or, in the initial instance, the National Archives.

The very process that we have followed means that, in some cases, we may not know all the answers to all the questions about the underlying material. And so, those are in possession of the Department of Justice. That would be more appropriate for them to be able to speak to specifics about the contents of the documents and material. And so, when it comes to that question, I would just have to point you to the Justice Department.

On the second question you asked, it's -- it's a very good one. You know, the White House Counsel's Office has institutional responsibilities to the Office of the President and, of course, the government more broadly. But as President Biden is the current sitting President of the United States, you know, there are institutional interests of the White House and of the government to be involved in matters involving the President. And the President has personal attorneys to handle his personal affairs.

And so, those are two distinct groups of people who are appropriately, at times, in communication about these matters. But that would explain, I think, your question of why there are two sets of lawyers who are involved.

I got time for a couple more real quick.

Peter Nicholas.

Q: Thank you. Can you hear me?

MR. SAMS: Yep. How's it going?

Q: Good, thank you. You have left an impression that we're talking about a minimal amount of material. On some occasions, you've talked about a small amount of classified documents found, a few pages found.

But this can be misleading to the public if there are many, many pages that are part of one document, for example. Or you might reference an item that's found. That also can include many, many pages.

Why not just be precise and say the pre- -- exact number of pages that have been found, as opposed to just telling us how many documents and whether it's a small amount or a large amount? Why don't we let the public decide whether the amount is small or large?

MR. SAMS: Yeah, thanks for the question, Peter. And I think it gets to a little bit of what we were talking about just a minute ago. You know, we're -- we're trying to give you guys access to the information that we have as it's appropriate with the investigation.

You know, in terms of underlying specific numbers, contents, things like that, those are just questions that are more appropriately answered by the Justice Department.

We are presenting information as we can, consistent with that ongoing investigation, trying to be as accurate as we can be.

But again, look, you know, you guys have asked -- and I've answered this question before, too -- you know, about more disclosure; you know, why things weren't disclosed earlier at a certain timel you know, questions about what was disclosed and why it was disclosed. You know, any investigation that is happening -- in any investigation of any kind, information throughout the course of that investigation is going to develop.

The Department of Justice is in charge. We're following their lead. They're, you know, running an independent investigation that we are incredibly mind- -- cooperative in and -- and mindful of not unduly influencing.

They make the decisions in their investigation. So, when it comes to, you know, exact numbers of materials, what the materials are, those are questions that the Justice Department will be looking at and will be analyzing in the course of their investigation.

When we provide information publicly, we're trying to provide accurate information as best we can to you all based on our knowledge, based on our access to what we know. You know, and -- and that's why, you know, it's being released in the way it's being released and stated in the way that it's stated.

But again, like I said before, in some cases, for example, materials get handed over immediately to the proper authorities. Members of the President's personal legal team, you know, don't, you know, go through all the material. They immediately hand it over to the proper authorities.

And so, that was laid out in the statement that Bob Bauer put out last weekend outlining how their search protocols have worked.

And so I understand, you know, the interest in the question. You know, I would argue that it is not an example of us somehow miss- -- choosing specifically to provide, you know, a certain set of information. We're trying to provide you the best and most accurate information we have at our disposal as appropriate with the ongoing investigation.

And so, you know, when it comes to the concrete underlying details of those documents, of materials that were taken by the Justice Department, you know, I think those are questions that, appropriately, would be better handled by the Justice Department. And so, we would have to encourage you to go to the Justice Department to ask it.

I have time for one last question here before I have to run, and I'm going to try to give Alexander Nazaryan another chance. I think he had an audio issue before.


Q: Can you hear me now?

MR. SAMS: Yes, I've got you now.

Q: Okay, great. Just looking at that letter, which you guys kindly shared with us, it -- although it doesn't -- although it certainly does not -- it does not indicate that you refuse to cooperate, it -- it also seems to me not to be a -- sort of, a full-throated commitment to work with House Oversight.

And I'm just wondering, you know, if we could pull apart the legalese or put it aside and just, sort of -- again, understanding that part of this is DOJ's jurisdiction, how much is the White House willing to do to make -- you know, to sort of -- to make an investigation by Republicans in the House credible to some degree?

MR. SAMS: Can you kind of explain that a little bit more? Sorry, I'm just -- I'm not following exactly what you're asking.

Q: I guess, looking at that letter, it didn't -- it doesn't strike me that you are especially eager to cooperate with them, and that would make any investigation House Oversight conducted incomplete and potentially allow the White House to say, "Look, this was a partisan investigation."

But -- but, you know, if you were to -- if the White House were to cooperate, that -- that investigation would just have a lot more legitimacy.

I'm just not getting the sense that you are, in fact, pledging cooperation because the language is pretty similar to what you used last week when it seemed like you wouldn't cooperate at all.

MR. SAMS: I think I understand what you're asking. Let me try to provide an answer there.

So, in the letter -- and again, if folks need that, we'd be happy to share it -- Congressman Comer, who's the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, had asked for information from the White House about this matter. We've responded with a letter.

I think, you know, you're referring to, sort of, how we are approaching their investigative requests. And, you know, we said to them in the letter response today that we are taking a look at the letters that they have sent with a goal of seeking to accommodate legitimate Oversight interests.

Obviously, we have to respect the separation of powers that exist and constitutional obligations that exist with certain material. And we, frankly, also have to take into account -- and -- and this was stated to the chairman as well -- that we have to protect the integrity of an ongoing law enforcement investigation, which I'm sure that Congressman Comer would agree is important to do to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation. I'm sure he wouldn't disagree with that.

And so, we are in communication with the Oversight Committee. We take this issue seriously. And, you know, we're approaching them in good faith and hoping that they approach us in good faith as well.

All right, I thank you so much, everybody, for joining us today. I have to hop off, but we'll continue this. And if you guys need anything else, just shoot me a note, or Sharon. Thanks.

4:57 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, On-the-Record Press Call by White House Spokesperson Ian Sams Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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